Wednesday 7 December 2016

McIlroy ready for Royal County Down

Published 27/05/2015 | 15:06

Rory McIlroy will look to bounce back from a missed cut at Wentworth on home soil this week
Rory McIlroy will look to bounce back from a missed cut at Wentworth on home soil this week

After his last competitive appearance at Royal County Down, an annoyed Rory McIlroy turned professional and headed to the first stage of the European Tour's qualifying school.

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Eight years later, McIlroy is back as a four-time major winner, world number one and a tournament host who can persuade world-class players to compete in the Irish Open and rich men to pay £100,000 for 18 holes in his company.

That money from his pro-am partners will go to McIlroy's own charitable foundation, as will any prize money the 26-year-old wins this week, with a third victory in five events worth £416,000.

It is al l a far cry from the narrow defeat in the 2007 Walker Cup which marked the end of McIlroy's amateur career, but the start of a friendship with United States team member Rickie Fowler which has seen the Players Championship winner return to the Northern Ireland links this week.

" I didn't even stay for the after-tournament dinner/party," McIlroy said on Wednesday. "I was heading off to the Oxfordshire Golf Club to compete in the first stage of Q-School. From that point to eight years on, and driving back in here again, it's a little different.

"At that time, not being a part of a winning team, I was probably driving out of here thinking, 'Why did I stay amateur for two days of golf?'

"But looking back at it, it was one of the best experiences I had. And not just in terms of the golf but the people that you meet and the friendships you make and the friendships you keep. It's something that you don't appreciate then. But whenever you move on a few years, that stuff is just as important."

McIlroy and Fowler - who joked that he is probably one of the few people who does remember that post-Walker Cup party because he did not have anything to drink - have been friends ever since, with the American needing no persuading to accept McIlroy's invitation.

The same could not be said of McIlroy's pro-am partners, who needed some cajoling before parting with their hard-earned money.

"The auction was going way too slowly for my liking, so I put my hand up and said I'll pay 100 grand to play by myself," McIlroy said. "There were a few billionaires in that room, so that got their hands in their pockets.

"I don't think there is any target number for what we can raise this week - a million, million and a half, two? Just as much as we possibly can and hopefully I can contribute £416,000 after I win on Sunday.

" The Irish Open for me for the last few years was becoming a bit of a.... I don't want to say a pain, but it didn't quite fit in the schedule or I just wasn't enjoying it as much as I could. And then the European Tour approached us about getting involved and we thought it was a perfect way to really kickstart the foundation and really start to help other people because of who I am and what I do.

"So I'm not really playing for myself this week. I'm playing for a lot of other people and it gives me an incentive to go out there and enjoy it and try to play well."

McIlroy has missed the cut in the Irish Open for the last two years but believes he will benefit from a third early exit in four years at Wentworth, where he collapsed to a second round of 78 in the defence of his title.

"I do feel refreshed," the he added. "I didn't get out of bed until one o'clock in the afternoon on Saturday. I came here on Sunday and played a quiet 18 holes. I came back on Monday morning and played. I feel very prepared. That (Wednesday's pro-am) was my third practice round. I haven't played three practice rounds for a tournament since the Masters.

"Even if you play four or five weeks in a row, physically you feel fine. It's more just the mental challenge of trying to keep it at that high level the whole time. Sometimes you just need to let yourself come down for a few days. That's what sort of happened. I just couldn't really keep it going."

Fowler has not competed since his remarkable win at Sawgrass, where he played the last six holes in six under par - taking a tournament-record 11 shots to finish birdie-eagle-birdie-birdie - before beating Sergio Garcia and Kevin Kisner in a play-off.

"I still don't think it's completely sunk in," said Fowler, whose second PGA Tour title was the perfect response to being labelled overrated by his fellow players in an anonymous poll at the start of the week.

"I had to wait a long time to get another win but it couldn't really have been at a better time, in one of the best tournaments we play and against the best field.

"I look at a close friend like Jimmy Walker, who had kind of been in a similar situation; great player, being in contention, didn't really get the job done and then once he got one win, he started rattling them off. I wouldn't mind being in that position and getting back in contention this week and see where we can go with it."

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